Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Trials

Eleven of Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men."

Although most legal problems are solved in routine ways that wouldn’t serve as fodder for an interesting movie plot, well-made suspenseful dramas set in the courtroom make for some of the best feature films. The credits usually play out over footage of the lawyers gathering their papers and the interested parties sucking up, or celebrating, the verdict.

This time the category is deliberately narrow. So, this isn’t lawyers week or any movie about trials week. Military trials aren’t being considered this time. That means great war films with trials at their center, such as “Breaker Morant,” “The Caine Mutiny” and “Paths of Glory,” can’t be on this list.

It also means movies about kangaroo court trials that take place outside of a legitimate courtroom, such as “M” or “The Ox Bow Incident,” are for another day‘s list of favorites.

My five favorite films about trials set in a courtroom are listed below, alphabetically:

“12 Angry Men” (1957): Directed by Sidney Lumet; Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959): Directed by Otto Preminger; Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara

“Inherit the Wind” (1960): Directed by Stanley Kramer; Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): Directed by Robert Mulligan; Cast: Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall

“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957): Directed by Billy Wilder; Cast: Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton

Yes, youthful readers, I can see that all the movies on my list were released a long, long time ago, within a window of just five years. Perhaps coincidentally, they were all made during the time when the Hollywood studio system was coming unraveled and before the time when scriptwriters would have felt obliged to make the lawyers’ depressions and doubts subplots to the story of the trial. Perhaps significantly, they were made before nudity and rough language became routine aspects of any crime and punishment story.

Moreover, they were all shot in black & white. If they had been made after the mid-1960s, it’s likely the same productions on my list would have been shot in color. Just as with film noir movies, it seems I prefer courtroom dramas to be about stark contrasts and presented in shades of gray.

Readers old and young are invited to use the comments section to point out the titles I overlooked.

— F.T. Rea

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4 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Trials

  1. Peter Schilling says:

    I probably watch “12 Angry Men” once a year–a masterpiece. “Anatomy” is fantastic, too. However, is the jury room a courtroom? I think there’s maybe three minutes total in the actual courtroom in “12 Angry Men”. Whatever–I might add that most modern courtroom dramas pale in comparison to these, so no argument about the fact that they’re old. I might also point out that these are very ‘pure’ courtroom dramas–the courtroom is the crux of the picture, whereas I think that the trial in, say, “Paths of Glory” is not the focal point of that picture. Nice job, T. Rea.

  2. James Young says:

    Good choices. As a litigator, I think part of the reason why courtroom dramas are no longer in vogue are the discovery rules applicable in most situations. Those moments of high drama just aren’t as frequent as they were in the days of “trial by ambush.”

    Probably a good thing, too.

  3. Hank Brown says:

    I’m not sure what you’re criteria for courtroom movies are but it seems that there have been at least a few good movies based on trials WITH courtroom scenes made since the advent of color. Films that dealt with subjects that were socially divisive and included sub plots that explored this inner turmoil of the lawyers and defendants dealing with these issues.

    I offer these films for consideration:

    The Accused (1988) – Because of the subject matter, gang rape, I don’t think this movie could have been made without color, nudity and graphic violence. In this case, the courtroom scenes juxtaposed with the bar footage told the stories of the different perpetrators very effectively although I found it very unsettling. And to the screen writers’ credit, there wasn’t a distracting lawyer sub plot with the lawyer battling the rights of a woman which would have been easy to do. Instead, the writers wrote Jodi Foster’s character to argue woman’s rights and morality against the lawyer, also a woman, arguing the individual rights provided by legal statutes. This is the only role I have ever liked Kelli McGillis in, btw.

    Philadelphia (1994) – OK, this film stars a young Tom Hanks and a young Denzel Washington but the subject matter, AIDS, was a very divisive issue when the movie was made and Washington character’s inner battle dealt with many of the same issues that many of viewers were struggling with on the topic: gradual, ugly death, social morals, and the uneducated and unsubstantiated fears associated with AIDS. Throw in big dollar corporation/law firm against the little guy and you have a really good movie.

    Amistad (1997)- Dealing with pre-civil war slavery, John Quincy Adams’ closing arguments, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, make for one of the great monologues in cinema history, IMHO. If not just for Hopkins’s performance then for the length of the scene shot in a single take. A great movie that shows not only the growing divide between the north and the south but differences on the rights of blacks around the world in the early 1800’s.

    Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) – OK, I like old black and white, pre-screen writers adding unnecessary and many times unrelated nudity and violence to the plot movies. This was one of the first films I saw that left me horrified and wondering how something like the Holocaust could have happened. I was young and have become more jaded but no less horrified at genocide no matter when and where it occurs even today. The interlacing of actual war footage really brought the message home and I don’t think the message could ever be delivered more effectively in color. Geez, am I agreeing with you?

  4. Pieter Visser says:

    Is everyone forgetting the extraordinary kangaroo courtroom scene in “A Man For All Seasons,” in which Paul Scofield shows convincingly why he, and the film, were deserving of all those Oscars?

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